The Battle of Free Spirit and Southwest Rapid Rewards

I’ve mentioned that few months ago, I got Bank of America Spirit Airlines MasterCard. It was a bit of an impulse application, as it looks like my original plan of going to Costa Rica isn’t going to materialize. Hey, I never said I’m 100% or even 90% perfect. So, since I plan on canceling the card before March in order to avoid an annual fee, I’m looking for ways to burn the miles.

You see, as a cardholder, you can take advantage of a special 2,500 miles one-way off-peak pricing.  But is it really a good deal? The answer is, you guessed it, “it depends.” Let me show you an example:

My sister-in-law needed a roundtrip ticket to see her parents in Pennsylvania. Spirit flies to Philadelphia, but there is a connection involved. Alternatively, you can fly to Atlantic City, which is 40 minutes further than Phily. No biggie, so we looked into booking her that flight. Since she wanted to fly in early December, I was able to take advantage  of  special 5,000 miles roundtrip pricing:

spirit price

Why this price? Well, there is Spirit bogus booking fee of $15 each way, $5 legit government tax and $30 for prepaid checked bag. So, the total price came up to 5,000 miles+$101, not bad, all things considered. In the process, Spirit tried to upsell on everything under the sun, but I was strong and just said NO (see listing of all their optional fees here). I had to use Spirit co-branded credit card to cover charges  in order to qualify for this special pricing. We went ahead and booked it because other legacy airlines wanted $200 and would still charge for checked luggage. But what about Southwest?

Well, I found non-stop roundtrip flight from Tampa to Philadelphia (her preferred choice) for 13,000 Rapid Rewards points. As you probably know, bags fly free and you can cancel and redeposit your points at no charge. Also, Spirit only has one daily flight from Tampa to Atlantic City, compared to several from Tampa to Philadelphia on Southwest. If your Spirit flight gets canceled, you may find yourself in a pickle (please, see reader comments) None of those things are deal breakers by any means, just something to be aware of.

There are instances when Spirit will probably beat Southwest:

  1. You need to fly to/from their hub city, which happens to be more convenient for your situation. See Spirit map of US coverageOtherwise, Southwest has  more extensive route network by far. Also, you are not tied to certain time periods when it comes to special mileage pricing. In most cases, each Rapid Rewards point is worth 1.6 cents when you factor in tax, giving you more flexibility.
  2. You need to book your ticket last-minute and it happens to be during their off-peak period. When I put in a flight leaving the next day, the special pricing of 2,500 miles was available, but booking fee was $50 each way instead of $15. Apparently, it varies depending on how far ahead you book your tickets. Still, in most cases, it will be cheaper to go this route compared to other carriers, including Southwest.
  3. You need to fly to Caribbean or Central America during off-peak time. Also, some airports are served by Spirit but not Southwest. An example: the island of St. Thomas. You can fly from Fort Lauderdale to St. Thomas  for only 5,000 miles roundtrip+ tax during certain times of the year, including few weeks in January. By comparison, you will pay 15,000 Avios to fly from Miami to St. Thomas. Unless you qualify for free checked bags on American Airlines (Avios program partner), Spirit will probably be a better option.

So, I do still think Spirit card can be a terrific deal for some. I see it as a gap-filler in your miles and points arsenal. It can be a cheap way to see relatives for  a weekend, when you can get by with only 1 checked bag for the whole family. Free Spirit (or shall we say, Fee Spirit) is very much a “niche” product, and you have to watch out for extra fees and be aware of potential drawbacks. Read my post on this card and Spirit program here. You may also want to read this Spirit Airlines trip report on Travel Codex.

So, which one was the winner in our case? To me, it was Southwest, without any doubt. Rapid Rewards pricing was fairly reasonable, airports were more convenient, and there was an option to re-deposit the points at no cost. Spirit charges $110 fee per award, so if you need to cancel, it probably would make sense to just cut your losses. As you can see, the programs are quite different in their business model.

Of course, it’s only fair to take into account the ease of earning points. Spirit card is issued by Bank of America and therefore, can be “churned.” You can only receive sign-up bonus on Southwest card as long as you haven’t gotten it in the last 24 months.

As far as earning goes, Spirit card gets 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, while Southwest card gets 1 point on most categories. Of course, Rapid Rewards program is a transfer partner of Chase, so you can increase your earning  potential if you have a combination of Chase Ink Plus (or Chase Sapphire Preferred) and Chase Freedom.

My conclusion: Comparing Free Spirit and Rapid Rewards programs is similar to comparing apples and oranges.

So, why didn’t I use Southwest points instead? Well, I want to save my Rapid Rewards for a specific upcoming trip, and was giving my Spirit miles to my sister-in-law for free. You know what they say about a gift horse.  I didn’t really offer my Southwest points and they don’t happen to have this currency. In case you are wondering, no, they don’t read my blog! Hey, I try to be generous, but I need to be practical too. Driving extra 40 minutes each way won’t kill her… I hope.

If you are thinking about signing up for Chase Southwest card, now (or within the next few weeks) may be a good time. The offer on both personal and business versions is currently increased to 50K points. See my page “Best credit card deals for family” The only reason you may want to hold off applying for a week or so, is if you are planning  to go for Companion pass. You would want the points to post in January of 2016, which would give you two full years to take advantage of it. It’s an incredible deal, and you can read more on it in the same page.

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8 thoughts on “The Battle of Free Spirit and Southwest Rapid Rewards

  1. I’ve also thought about the Spirit card before. I think that the worst of all (there’s a lot of bad things) is that you can only take advantage of their special deals while you are a card holder. If you are tied to the school schedule in any way, either bc you or your kids are students or you work for the school system (I’m the three of them!!!) you won’t be able to fly on their off peak times. A lot of their routes are not offered year round. I travelled once from Minneapolis to Chicago for the incredible price of $100 round trip. Then volunteered to skip the return flight as it was oversold and was offered two shiny vouchers that I could never use as their restrictions were ridiculous. I know, I know, there’s probably enough negative stuff said about Spirit out there. I still loved the $100 flight to Chicago, so I’d fly them again but never again volunteer to be bumped off. I may also consider getting their card if there are not other offers around my apporama time. I think you did great: saved your SW miles and scored a point or more with your sister in law.


    • Leticia, you nailed it on why Spirit program is probably not the best fit for most families. Emphasis on “most.” If someone has relatives who live near Spirit hub, AND the kids are homeschooled, it can be a tremendous deal. It is also a good program to bring grandparents over who happen to be retired.
      My problem is that my plans involved driving to Fort Lauderdale and flying when kids are in school. That airport is almost 4 hours from our home, not ideal. Also, my daughter is in a special gifted class that follows a very rigid curriculum. They really don’t like it when you take the kids out during school. It’s OK for a day or two, but I really want to spend more time than that in Costa Rica.
      I’m still trying to figure out what to do with miles, maybe will use them for a short anniversary trip next September. Ahh, so many choices, so many miles… A good problem to have, right?
      I did feel kind of bad for not offering my sister-in-law Rapid Rewards points, but I have a specific need for that currency. In the end, they saved more than $100, so I guess it’s OK.


  2. Ahhh Spirit! My mother in law, who is retired, tried to fly for mother’s day this year. She lives in Virginia and they drove her to Baltimore. She spent the day in the airport, fly got cancelled, she had to go back home. Never made it for mother’s day and promised never to fly on Spirit again 😉

    Sorry, it sounds as if I want to contradict everything you say, it’s just my experience. But again, good for half an hour flights from MSP to CHI with a backpack under the seat for luggage.


    • Leticia, no need to apologize! Thank you so much for sharing your experience. That’s exactly the kind of feedback I’m looking for. Yeah, this can be an issue. I’ve even mentioned it in the post. If there is one flight per day, there is a risk of things not working out. I will update the post and encourage readers to look at your comments.
      P.S. Don’t ever hesitate to contradict me! 😉


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